Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta possesses a remarkable kind of optimism. It’s the kind that allows him to find glimmers of hope in the most heartbreaking situations.

Siddharth movie

Story by Sheetal Maya Nanda

“I’m trying to show how resilient people can be, even in the worst of times.” – Richie Mehta, director, Siddharth

 

We experience just that in his second feature film, Siddharth, which screens next week at the Toronto International Film Festival following its Venice world premiere.

If you’re unfamiliar with Richie Mehta’s work, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Mehta’s award-winning feature debut, Amal, which premiered at TIFF in 2007, was thought provoking and honest, and his storytelling melded realism with grace, something we also expect from Siddharth, which is already getting awards buzz.

siddharth director richie mehtaSiddharth tells the story of Mahendra, a poor chain-wallah in India (he tends to broken zippers) who sends his 12-year old son away to work to lessen his financial burden. When Siddharth fails to return home, Mahendra embarks on a journey across India to find his son.

The inspiration for Siddharth (which Mehta also wrote and co-produced) came from the director’s own shocking encounter with a rickshaw-wallah on the streets of Delhi.  “In 2010, I met a man on the streets of Delhi, who asked me for help in finding a place called ‘Dongri.’ I asked him what it was, and he told me he thought it was where he could find his lost son.”

Mehta says the man told him he believed his son had been kidnapped and trafficked. The illiterate man could not spell his son’s name and did not own a photo of him. “Since he was obliged to work every day…all he could do was ask others for help. And he’d been doing this for over a year. Knowing that this man didn’t have the ability, nor the means, to even properly inquire about his son is an unfathomable tragedy. He barely understood why this kind of thing happens, much less how.”

Penning this man’s tragedy wasn’t immediate. At the time, Mehta was working on another project (the upcoming sci-fi film, I’ll Follow You Down). But his overwhelming feelings of sorrow, helplessness and confusion about this man’s tragic circumstances compelled him to write the script.

He tells me that what struck him most was that the man had to go to work the next day. “There was no mourning period in that environment. Over here if something like that happens people would lose their minds from grief and we would completely understand it. Over there, you don’t even get one day. His coping mechanisms were remarkable and they are that way because he had no choice. There’s something amazing about that which I think we can learn from.”

For those worried about the tragic nature of this story, Mehta reveals that the movie has elements of hope. “In the film, I didn’t want to show the bad side of this environment. I needed to frame this man’s story in a way that I could digest…What could I glean out of this and how could I show the positive side of human nature because there are too many dreadful things about it. I inferred that everyone this man asked to help him, myself included, was going to try to help. So in the film, we are spending time with good people, people that really feel for Mahendra. People are trying to help him.”

amal film richie mehta

A still from Richie Mehta’s debut feature film, Amal.

In Amal, Mehta also examined poverty in India and focused on exposing the very real aspects of human nature. I asked Mehta what appeals to him about telling stories from this perspective.

“It’s about economics between a place like Canada and India and understanding there’s a relationship. People live the way they do for a reason. There’s a lot to learn from seeing how people negotiate certain things at the bottom, especially when they are affected by us.” Mehta informs me that as a Canadian viewer, I’ll know my exact entry point into Siddharth when I see a scene involving an iPhone.

As a Canadian director who shot both his features in India, Mehta’s views on Indian cinema, which turned 100 this year, are optimistic. “Ultimately what I’d like to see are darker, edgier films created in India; ones that push the envelope. I hope that mainstream Indian cinema goes back to the social issues like it did in the 70s and 80s. Not in a didactic way, but in a way that movies are about entertainment, enlightenment and education. I think Indian cinema is capable of doing this because it has so much influence over people.”

Which Bollywood films have influenced Mehta the most? “My nostalgic favourite is Kaala Patthar. There’s a type of nobility in that film that I don’t see very often anymore, a real poetic justice. But I have to say the best Bollywood film I’ve ever seen is Lagaan. It’s the only Bollywood movie that had me on the edge of my seat the entire time.”

 

Siddharth will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10 and 12, 2013.

Story by: Sheetal Maya Nanda  |  Photography Courtesy: Poor Man’s Productions and TIFF